Now summarising an Ofcom document whilst considering technology, and frankly reality, is a very difficult thing to do. If you choose to read it (link below), you will have to read it once, then read it by virtue of looking for contradictions, they are bountiful. So take a point from the document, re-read it to see if there are contradictions, repeat with all points. You also cannot read a document in isolation, so you will need to re-read previous documents around this topic from previous years.
It is not an easy read, but this is available to members of the public to understand and provide feedback, however a lot of what Ofcom documents focus on is simply “Absolving Ofcom of repercussions”, there is a section dedicated to this within all documents they publish.
Now before we carry on let me say, we look at solutions on the next page, so if you have enough of this stuff, don’t leave us, just skip to the bottom and click next!
Now before we get into this particular guidance, let us look at
A little bit of Ofcom
As far as “legal stuff” goes, yes I am not best to comment, but in relation to industry practice, what will likely happen, and technology available, then my views I would say are valid.
My view of Ofcom is quite negative so I will get that bit out of the way now so we can focus on issues for consumers
- Documents are not consumer friendly, in order to understand them you need to understand technology
- In order to read any document from Ofcom, it requires reading several others to see contradictions in views.
- The general process with Ofcom over time is this
- Ofcom creates an issue by avoiding due diligence
- The issue is then blamed on the industry
- Ofcom then gets their ‘hero moment’ where they fix the issue with the industry that they created in the first place
- They more often than not take information from other sources, remove elements of it to support their conclusions, including their own documentation.
An example of point 4 can be understood quite easily with broadband
In the Ofcom connected nations report, they state that 93% of consumers have access to super fast speeds, the Broadband Performance report defines superfast as 30mbps.
The 93% figure is taken from the BT Quarterly Financial report where they state access as 24mbps, so the 30mbps is what Ofcom state super fast should be, but are using a figure that relates to a lower bandwidth from BT to state ‘this is what people get’.
All figures disregard the Sam Knows Panellist data, which demonstrates that this is not the case in any circumstance, and this panellist data is supposed to be used to validate that what a provider is saying is actually true.
They do similar with the definition of Rural, so instead of using the recognised definitions, they have made their own up for ‘simplicity’, and, for example, a property that is 1km from the Llanelli, which services roughly 20,000 residential consumers will be listed as Rural, the premises in question is not rural by England or Wales definitions.
In technological definitions, at an absolute push you could define this property as a “Rural Premises on an Urban Exchange”, but even then, it is too close to the exchange to be considered Rural as far as technology is concerned. The reason being is that if there is a high enough volume of consumers served by an exchange, it is profitable to invest in the technology of that exchange and see a return, communications technology is impacted by distance (same applies for Satellite, Mobile, Analogue, it comes back to distance), so proximity to an exchange would also define how rural a premises is as far as technology is concerned.
These types of lazy definitions on Ofcoms part is essentially why true rural consumers do not see the services that Ofcom defines they have access to.
The example in this particular piece from Ofcom is around Ofgem outage reports, essentially they demonstrate an improvement in the electricity network, but they don’t provide numbers, only percentages. So for all we know, we have exactly the same number of properties impacted by power cuts, newer properties on new infrastructure are improving the percentage values to demonstrate that the infrastructure is improving. There is also no consideration given to the time of year, hours of daylight, causes of power cuts and relation to risk of loss of life, nor is there any consideration given to when incidents occur after a power cut, for example, does looting often occur within the first hour of a power cut?
Then there are some other statistics, a lot of which do not relate to our specific scenario.
An example here being that the majority of emergency calls are made from a mobile phone, this does not account for our situation of power loss in the home, it would be reasonable to assume that this increase is due to the convenience of a mobile when emergency services are required out of the home. It also does not account for services relied upon by vulnerable people that do not connect to emergency services, care in the community services and social services for example, which take weight away from the emergency services. It does not account for how long a mobile can operate in a power cut or how long a mast will retain power for.
It does not provide a statistic for the scenario in play or the technology available today.
Now let’s set all my negative comments aside and focus on the principles of this guidance.
Guidance – Protecting access to emergency organisations when there is a power cut at the customer’s premises
This is comprised of 4 main principles
Providers should have at least one solution that enables access to emergency organisations for a minimum of one hour in the event of a power outage in the premises
So first and foremost, 1 hour does not mean 1 hour of talk time. Talk time will diminish as the overall battery power diminishes. For example, if a fresh battery offers 20 minutes of talk time and 1 hour of standby time, after 1/2 hour of standby, there is nothing to suggest you would still have 20 minutes of talk time.
If you talk on the phone for 10 minutes at the start of a power cut, you will not have 50 minutes of standby time left. So an elderly person who dials 105 during a power cut (The number for UK Power Networks), which according to Age UK is a very useful service for them which they are encouraged to call, will impact the availability of the landline service.
Now the main arguments in this section from Ofcom are around
- 1 hour is enough time for someone to call for help.
- Consumers can use mobile phones
- The cost of providing more than 1 hour of back up would be too high and require an extensive UPS, along with annual visits for maintenance of the UPS.
None of these are true, none of it has supporting evidence.
Point 1 – It stands to reason that the longer a power cut lasts, the more likely there are incidents that require calling emergency services, assuming the incident is within the 1st hour has not been validated by any relevant organisation.
Point 2 – If we go back to earlier documentation in this subject area, we can clearly see an Ofcom conclusion that mobile phones should work in a power cut, but they are unlikely to last very long. This narrative changes to suit this document with no supporting evidence. The extent of the power cut defines what services will work and for how long.
Point 3 – A router is a nothing device for a consumer, that means it does very little for a consumer in relation to power consumption when comparing to say a mobile phone, a laptop, a tablet. These devices do not need annual maintenance visits, they can be in stand by for a significant amount of time and subsequently allow a significant usage time period. Along with this we have alarm systems, auto dalliers, panic alarms, these all have batteries that last a significant amount of time. The technology exists to provide a long term service at a reasonable cost and for a Router to come with a significant built in battery. It is also possible for the purpose of the router to change dependent on whether there is mains power or whether it is running off battery, much like this technology exists with everything we have in place today.
General point of interest – If we had not had extensive wide area power cuts that impacted a large sum of consumers in recent years, we could potentially see logic to parts of these points, however, Lancaster and Themes Flooding shows us that this is not a niche issue. We know that this is not the case in recent years. There are also statistics available during these outages that could be used to formulate an approach.
These statistics have been disregarded and are not present in any part of the Ofcom documentation.
The solution should be suitable for customers’ needs and should be offered free of charge to those who are at risk as they are dependent on their landline
This principle is not thought out, not fleshed out, the guidance is limited. One of my larger issues with this is around Ofcom not providing actual instructions to determine who is at risk. They also will not specify suitable solutions.
The bigger problem here is there is no incentive for a provider to act reputably, in essence, there is no USO obligation or bursary considered here. Usually, when the cost to the consumer is high and the cost to the provider is high to meet a Universal Service Obligation like this, we see a government funded allowance for these consumers.
Rural Broadband who cannot get the USO of 10mbps for example will qualify for sums of money towards additional broadband requirements.
This particular approach is off putting for providers i.e. If I go out of my way to define someone as ‘at risk’ this will impact my profit/loss, I will potentially have to provide a service at a loss. This goes back to essentially, Ofcom creating a problem that they will have to fix later by blaming the industry, but we know what the industry is like, we also know from previous guidance that this type of approach WILL cause a problem.
Providers should i) take steps to identify at risk customers and ii) engage in effective communications to ensure all customers understand the risk and eligibility criteria and can request the protection solution
So again for this principle, we fall back to the mobile telephone shortfalls, the same issues with power in the mobile mast. Same issues as other unknown quantities.
However, this section is particularly bad on Ofcoms part, if you recall me referencing earlier how Ofcom create a problem to fix later, well usually it is to do with ‘bill shock’ or unfair access, so for example due to poor number management on Ofcoms part, Ofcom gave out 070 numbers in way that a provider could write their own ticket and consumer would recognise it as a mobile telephone number only to later get a bill of a pretty high value, in this scenario of phones working in power outages, the issue that will arise is injury, suffering and risk to loss of life.
While they have a lot of points in this section, it kind of gets undone with this
“We do not intend to provide detailed guidance as to the questions that providers should ask their customers, or the method of asking these questions….”
Under the pretence that providers are best placed to define these.
So here for due diligence we would expect Ofcom to talk to recognised and established organisations for risks and concerns, Age UK, Social Services, Healthcare visitors, Healthcare providers, Emergency Services, Ordinance Survey. There are numerous people who can help define how to recognise at risk people, from the questions you ask to integration with 3rd party providers to see Flood Risk, Looting Statistics, Power Outages in areas etc.
So what we are relying on here is, essentially, instead of imposing rules and questions that should be asked, we are letting providers define their own rules and questions in relation to some very high level guidance.
It isn’t necessary, we can in this day and age tell communications providers what questions they MUST ask along with what steps they MUST take along with which Organisations they MUST consult with.
Providers should have a process to ensure that customers who move to a new house or whose circumstances change in some other way are aware of the risk and protection solution available
This relies on every other principle being effective.
As ever, bad, the solution to this issue in the current approach WILL rely on somebody losing their life or ending up with a severely impacted quality of life before Ofcom impose rules to ensure that risk is identified correctly and that appropriate solutions are enforced.
The Guidance is around enabling access to emergency services, so if the access is not there, what are the consequences for the consumer?
How can I draw that conclusion
There are 2 reasons for this
The guidance conclusion
From experience, this is how the telecoms industry works and operates.
A new service is deployed, Ofcom have very technical expertise, they generally understand the financial side but even in relation to that the approach often goes
Lets see what happens before we try to work out a suitable solution
So we go through these motions, we deploy them, deployed in a competitive way, the industry is best placed to define how these solutions should work and how they should be billed, it becomes unfair to the consumer, it was never fair to begin with, we then wait about 2 years for Ofcom to catch up, a further 2 years to pass new guidance or enforce rules.
This particular issue is nothing new given that the issue here is with the Telecoms regulation process, it is always and has always been possible to identify the issues from the start as opposed to relying solely on hindsight.
We do this by learning from past guidance and the mistakes made there.
The vast majority of consumer issues are common sense.
A lot of Ofcoms conclusions are then based on certain statistics, the majority of Emergency calls coming from mobile phones as an example, but there is nothing to support this within the scenario of this Guidance.
For example, we would question
- How many of these calls were made from people outside of the home?
- How many of these calls were made from people inside their home?
- How many calls to emergency services use a mobile in a power cut?
So with mobile phones, we are not running to a shop or to a nearby house for them to call 999 if there was a car accident, we are taking out our mobile phones.
The topic here is ‘Emergency access during a power outage’
So what we need statistics on is basically, ‘What goes down in the real world, in this scenario’
Again, this is a common thing with Ofcom, ‘find a statistic to back us up, irrespective of whether that statistic applies to this scenario’, misdirection if you like.
So I can draw this conclusion from the guidance simply because the supporting evidence that is presented by Ofcom does not relate to our scenario in question.
4-5 years ago BT announced this switch, that gave sufficient time for Ofcom to do the following
- Find out the times of power cuts of varying lengths and causes.
- Map this back to the Emergency Services call records for the same dates and times.
Then if we saw that the majority of calls at these times were from mobile services, we have a valid statistic, but this has not been done.
The technology conclusion
So lets take an example
I define a consumer as at risk, they require a solution to be available 24/7, this solution could be managed by a local service, often elderly people who have care in the community services (Social Services and Nurse Visits) have a service whereby they don’t connect through to 999, the calls are filtered by another service who defines whether they can send someone like a carer out or they need to send out an ambulance.
As a provider, I can provide a service seemingly that only utilises VoIP and mobile phone technology, I can provide them with a 24 hour battery for their service, but due to the mobile mast power requirements and the cabinet power requirements, both of which are unknown, this may only work for 1 hour anyway.
The number from the dialling service which connects to the community service centre will not be diallable if the mobile network roams, only 999/112 calls and numbers defined as emergency can roam, so if this user relies solely on a single button system, I already know there are limitations in these dialling out.
If, however, I did my due diligence, I would find that there are solutions that can be enforced on providers that would work for this 24 hour period without relying on unknown quantities such as mobile masts and physical power requirements in the area.
I can limit my problems solely to “All I need for this to work is power at the property”, I have no reason to rely on a mobile solution or a VoIP solution, I don’t need to rely on fixed line broadband, I don’t need to rely on multiple points of power failure.
So from knowing that, I know that I should not as a legislator make two statements like this
- The service provider will determine whether or not the solution is suitable
- Mobile phones will operate in a power cut anyway
The reason being is that is makes a service that is not suitable compliant when there are suitable options available.
We will have a look at some solutions on the next page that can apply to multiple scenarios.